August 27, 2005

"Approximate" quotations can undermine readers' trust in The Times

So says the NYT code of ethics, as well it should. For the past couple of months, I've been muttering about sloppy if not dishonest quoting practices in print media, including at the NYT. There's a particularly striking example in an 8/18/2005 article by Joel Brinkley and Steven R. Weisman, based on an interview with Condi Rice, which ran under the headline "Rice Urges Israel and Palestinians to Sustain Momentum".

The NYT article starts like this:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Wednesday offered sympathy for the Israeli settlers who are being removed from their homes in Gaza but also made it clear that she expected Israel and the Palestinians to take further steps in short order toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

"Everyone empathizes with what the Israelis are facing," Ms. Rice said in an interview. But she added, "It cannot be Gaza only."

The transcript of the interview was posted by the U.S. State Department web site under the title "Interview With The New York Times", dated August 17, 2005. In that transcript, the only occurrence of the string "empathize" is this one:

I know, in having talked to them and watched how hard and I think everybody empathizes with what every Israeli has to be feeling and with people uprooting from homes that they have been in for a generation and the difficulty and the pain that that causes.

And the only place where "Gaza only" occurs is here:

The other thing is, just to close off this question, the question has been put repeatedly to the Israelis and to us that it cannot be Gaza only and everybody says no, it cannot be Gaza only.

In between those two sentences are more than 1,300 words and 20 conversational turns.

Taking the first "quote" first, and ignoring the problem of yanking a phrase out of context, we've got an "approximate quotation" by anyone's standards (State Department transcript in black, NYT quote in blue):

                 Everyone  empathizes with what  the  Israelis are       facing
...  and I think everybody empathizes with what every Israeli  has to be feeling and ...

On the construal most favorable to the NYT -- scoring only the fragment from "everybody" to "feeling", and giving maximum credit for substitutions instead of insertions and deletions -- we have 5 substitutions and 2 deletions relative to 10 original words, for a word error rate of 70%. The meaning is similar, but that makes it a paraphrase rather than a quote.

In the case of the second quoted fragment, which Secretary Rice is said to have "added", there are three obvious problems. First, it's wrong to take a clause out of an indirect quotation and pretend that it's direct speech. If you say "everybody tells me that X", I can't quote you as asserting X -- you might well go to add "but I don't believe it for a minute". In this case, Rice does seem to include herself among the "everybody" who says that "it cannot be Gaza only", but that brings us to the second problem: she goes on to explain what she (at least) means by "not Gaza only", and it's not very much. Specifically,

There is, after all, even a link to the West Bank and the four settlements that are going to be dismantled in the West Bank. Everybody, I believe, understands that what we're trying to do is to create momentum toward reenergizing the roadmap and through that momentum toward the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state.

And finally, the linking phrase "but she added" seems to me to be the most dishonest thing of all. The meaning of add in question is something like "to say or write further", with the implication that the addition is in immediate rhetorical contiguity with what is added to. The use in Brinkley and Weisman's third sentence carries the clear implication that Rice chose to extend her remarks about empathy for the Gaza evacuation with a contrasting reminder of the need for further Israeli territorial concessions.

Now, that's the NYT's editorial line, and it might be the right line to take, but it's not really what Rice said. Not only was her "addition" yanked out of indirect speech attributed to others, not only was it was hedged immediately by a reference to the four West Bank settlements already being evacuated and a vague commitment to "momentum towards reenergizing the roadmap", but most important, it was in response to a different question, roughly eight minutes later, following 9 other intervening questions and answers.

I surmise that Brinkley and Weisman (or their editor) wrote the lede based on what they wanted to project as Rice's intent, and then looked through their notes on the interview for an illustrative quote. Not finding one, they stitched something together out of widely-separated fragments taken out of context. Somehow it's more surprising to see this done to the U.S. Secretary of State than to the San Antonio Spurs' scoring leader . But whether the speaker is Tim Duncan or Condi Rice, we should be able to believe that words in quotation marks in a newspaper stories are an accurate reflection of what was said, and give a fair impression of what was meant.

This is not just my own opinion. I've previously cited the NYT's own code of ethics on quotations:

Readers should be able to assume that every word between quotation marks is what the speaker or writer said. The Times does not "clean up" quotations. If a subject’s grammar or taste is unsuitable, quotation marks should be removed and the awkward passage paraphrased. Unless the writer has detailed notes or a recording, it is usually wise to paraphrase long comments, since they may turn up worded differently on television or in other publications. "Approximate" quotations can undermine readers’ trust in The Times.

The writer should, of course, omit extraneous syllables like "um" and may judiciously delete false starts. If any further omission is necessary, close the quotation, insert new attribution and begin another quotation. (The Times does adjust spelling, punctuation, capitalization and abbreviations within a quotation for consistent style.) Detailed guidance is in the stylebook entry headed "quotations." In every case, writer and editor must both be satisfied that the intent of the subject has been preserved.

Assuming that the State Department's transcript is accurate, the Brinkley and Weisman article seems to be a clear violation of both the letter and the spirit of this policy. Unfortunately, such violations are the norm rather than the exception, not only at the NYT but in print media in general.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 27, 2005 07:09 AM